On idioms and political speech: Shooting skinned cats in a barrel

On idioms and political speech: Shooting skinned cats in a barrel

Oct 9th 2013, 15:32 by L.D. | NEW YORK

FLULA BORG, a German DJ and comedian, has recently attracted millions of hits on YouTube with his hilariously confused rants about English idioms. In a video about the expression “shooting fish in a barrel”, Mr Borg seems utterly perplexed. “If I can catch all of the fishes and then put them in barrel, I don’t need to shoot them…that is like, ‘Oh, you know, I have some cake, but I do not just eat it. No, no. I put the cake in a barrel, then I shoot it then I eat it. Those are…two steps addition that you do not need.” He was also particularly upset after he received a text from a girl and his friend said, “Aww, Flula got a booty call!” It was not a booty that was calling him, Mr Borg insisted; it was a person who was texting him. “Booties make call? How the possible of this? … In a science way, show to me how it working.”As it happens, Mr Borg makes a good point. Figurative expressions are problematic, and not just for non-native English speakers. As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” Orwell probably did not have the term “booty call” in mind, but his argument that idioms and cliché expressions mix “vagueness and sheer incompetence” holds true.

Orwell argued that politicians are the worst abusers of figurative speech. This continues to bear out. Take Al Gore; the man loves a metaphor. He once described a metaphor as “a very common, run-of-the-mill intellectual tool that all of us use.” He used a metaphor to explain what a metaphor was; he used a mental shortcut to explain why he uses mental shortcuts.

But when it comes to confusion over figurative versus literal, Joe Biden takes the cake, so to speak. At an October 2010 fundraiser in Minnesota, he said, “If I hear one more Republican tell me about balancing the budget, I am going to strangle them.” He added, “To the press, that’s a figure of speech.” This was reassuring, as rarely does Mr Biden reveal that he knows the difference between literal and figurative speech. In his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech, for example, he said that killing Bin Laden was “literally…healing an unbearable wound” and that America had “literally stood on the brink” of an economic disaster. “My fellow Americans, we now find ourselves at the hinge of history. And the direction we turn is not figuratively, [it] is literally in your hands.” Had Mr Borg been there, he might have wondered how he could hold a “direction” in his hands.

Yet the danger of idioms goes beyond laziness. Many figurative expressions have literal origins, but few people stop to think about what they are. For example, the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs” apparently comes from a time when cats and dogs liked to hide in thatched roofs for warmth; when heavy rains fell, the animals would either fall through the roof or jump down in masses, according to etymologist and author Michael Quinion. It’s doubtful that Marvin Gaye knew the roots of his own lyrics, “I heard it through the grapevine”—a term that caught on in the mid-19th century in reference to the twisted vine-like wires of the telegraph and the jumbled messages that would result.

To be fair, it’s hard to believe there was once literal meaning to most phrases. It all seems so violent: we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot, cutting off our noses, breaking each other’s legs for good luck, shooting messengers, and stabbing friends in the back. We’d be too hurt to dig our own literal graves. We’d be killing birds with stones, breaking camels’ backs, and beating dead horses. Dogs would be eating other dogs, cats would be getting skinned, and Mr Biden would be strangling Republicans. Maybe people would somehow lose their shit, but not before it hits the fan.

Alas, sometimes we think we know the root of a term but we are wrong. “Balls to the wall”, for example, is a term that refers to military pilots accelerating rapidly, thrusting the ball-shaped grip of the throttle lever to the panel firewall, thus gaining full speed. (Naturally Mr Borg was perplexed over this expression as well. “[Putting my balls on the wall] does not help me to do anything, except smell the wall,” he observed. “Balls on the chair. Boom. Now we are ready for some things.”)

And sometimes origins are extremely unexpected. In a November 2010 press conference, President Barack Obama said that “cap and trade” was “just one way of skinning the cat.” It is a common expression, used to imply that there are plenty of ways of doing something. But a closer look at its origins reveals it is a somewhat unsavoury turn of phrase.

Dave Wilton, an English PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and a member of the American Dialect Society, has pointed out that in the 1492 book “Salomon and Marcolphus” there is a scene in which Marcolphus says, “A catte that hath a good skyn shal be flayne.” Solomon responds, “A ferdefull [fearful] woman shabbe [shall be] praysed.” Wilton believes that the exchange implied that a cat’s fur was a valuable commodity and should not be wasted on the cat. “It’s almost certainly quite literal,” Mr Wilton said. “The flaying of cats has a proverbial life that goes back quite far.”

And the rather violent act of skinning a cat is no easy thing, says John Youngaitis, a taxidermist in New York. “There is not more than one way to skin a cat.”

So the phrase is grotesque and factually incorrect. But wait: it gets worse. By the 16th century, both “cat” and “pussy” became slang terms for women, especially prostitutes, says Mr Wilton. “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” records a first citation of “cat” to describe a prostitute in 1401. Cat-related slang to refer to female genitalia goes back to 1699 in the “Oxford English Dictionary” and 1683 in “Green’s”. (It’s probably why we still say “cat-calling.”) By the 19th century, according to “Green’s”, “cat-skinning” was slang for sexual intercourse. As an example, he pointed to the song “The Slashing Costermonger” from the 1837 book “The Cuckold’s Nest of Choice, Flash, Smutty, and Delicious Songs, Etc”. One phrase in the song is:

My vife, she’s such a taste refined,
All hearts she must be vinning,
For ven the turfing trade is bad,
She gets blunt by cat skinning.

“It is possible, perhaps likely, that ‘more than one way to skin a cat’ was originally a double entendre,” explains Mr Wilton. The catchphrase probably always carried the primary meaning that there is more than one way to achieve one’s aim, but most likely, “It originally had a sexual double meaning that men could smirk at.”

Maybe this is not the best image for the president of the United States to be evoking. Yet language evolves based on our usage of it. So although figurative expressions have literal roots, collective ignorance of these roots ensures politicians (and other linguistically lazy types) can really “go to town” with them without committing a major offence. Indeed, even the word “literally” is now divorced from its literal meaning—a change that people are “up in arms” over now, but which has been in use (as Mr Biden used it) for over 200 years. So let ‘em have it, Mr Vice President. Anyone you offend will have to simply “bite the bullet”.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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